He screams for several minutes before Alex opens the door, then strolls right in as if he’s lived there for years. Cats are strange that way. They seek you out. They know. And this cat is no exception. He knows Alex will let him in and he knows he will let him stay.
It’s hard to tell if he’s a stray or not. His head seems larger than normal, makes him look wild. No collar and hungry, he enters the kitchen, brushes up against the refrigerator and screams to be fed, marking his territory along the way. He raises his tail by the antique chair, the semicircular one with the rich green upholstery. Alex can’t see the spray, but the cat has huge balls, no way is he neutered. Tomorrow the apartment will reek of garlic and Windex, a rancid tomcat smell.
Alex puts some water in a bowl, fixes him hamburger in the microwave. The cat screams, rubs Alex’s legs as he drains the fat into an empty spaghetti sauce can and shreds the meat. Alex admires him as he eats. His manners aren’t bad, the food doesn’t spread to the floor, but he eats fast. He’s hungry. And white, so white he glows, with golden eyes and grey areas where the dirt’s embedded.
Alex steps out into the night air to see a neighbor. She knows every cat in the apartment complex, takes in the strays and finds them homes, euthanizes them when the need arises.
The evening is brisk. Three cats gaze out her window at him. He knocks and rings the bell. No answer. He tries again, watching the cats. They don’t even flinch. If she were home they’d tip him off. They’d look at her slipping on a gown or cursing the late call.
He takes his time coming back, notices the full moon. Maybe it’s to blame for his unexpected guest. On a clear night the moon has an iridescent quality; the deeper places where the craters lie appear a light grey.
Alex’s grandfather told him that the moon is full of cheese. The astronauts found only dust. He thinks about the dusty cat. He must have come from somewhere past the creek and trees where the coyotes prowl and howl under the same moon. He listens. Too early for coyotes.
Inside the cat screams hello. Alex pens a note to the cat lady. He kicks off his sandals and takes his time, describes the cat well. The cat nuzzles his chin against Alex’s bare feet as he writes; screams when he goes out the door a second time. Alex folds the note in half and holds a thumbtack in the same hand. He can tack it to her door.
This time of year the temperature drops as soon as the sun disappears. The moon seems fuller now. An engine guns a warning as Alex gazes up. A truck nearly cuts him down. Everyone’s in a hurry.
Her window’s catless. He rings the bell.
“Who is it?”
The door opens and there she is, a scarecrow of a woman with frazzled hair and a tired look. Did he wake her up? He doesn’t ask. She invites him in and the cats scatter like a handful of marbles. One peers out wide-eyed from inside a box. Alex looks around. There’s a smell of incense, jasmine, stale, makes the room smell damp, like after a rain. The walls and bookcases are covered with posters and prints. Mostly cats, and Marilyn Monroe. The cat woman’s degree is the only thing framed. He admires a postcard of Marilyn on one of her shelves.
“Are you a fan of Norma Jean’s?” he asks.
“Not like that,” she says. “I just think people didn’t know who she was. They only knew her image, what was there on the outside and she wasn’t like that at all. In a lot of her pictures you can see it, the look in her eyes. She was a troubled person. When I see that look in her eyes I know she’s sad, that there are things she wants to say but can’t, because the world won’t let her. I guess I identify with her somehow.”
Alex examines the picture. She’s right about the look in Marilyn’s eyes. It’s in every photo, a beautiful woman whose eyes betray the vulnerability of a young girl. That was her image, no secret. That’s what was so attractive about her. When Alex looks at a woman, he instantly knows what he likes about her, the curve of her breasts, her smile, the look in her eyes, the way her hair catches the light. The cat woman is skinny, a stick-figure with gnarled locks. He changes the subject, and she’s immediately concerned about his house guest.
“He doesn’t sound familiar.”
“I was hoping you might know if he belonged to someone.”
“I wish I could help, but he doesn’t sound familiar.” They manufacture a makeshift litter box, cardboard lined with a garbage bag. She provides litter, some dry food.
“The litter is nice,” she says. “I like it. It smells like hay.” She scoops up a handful and lets it run through her fingers. “I don’t go around smelling cat litter so don’t think I’m weird. This stuff is made from peanut shells. They soak them and feed them through a meat grinder. Try some.”
Reluctantly, Alex scoops up a handful of his own, smells it, and lets it sift back down into the box.
“Very nice,” he says.
She gives him the name of a clinic, the doctor there will take care of everything necessary for half-price if he mentions the cat is a stray, but he’ll have to take care of everything at once, tests, shots, neutering. He agrees with her that strays should be neutered, otherwise they’ll just make more strays. And if he keeps him, neutering will ensure that he won’t spray indoors. She is an animal advocate, goes to demonstrations and rallies. Hates furs. Loves the vet.
“You’ll like him,” she says. “He’s different. Maybe even a little strange.”
“Well if he’s strange I’m sure to like him.”
“He’s very good. He cares about the animals and he expects you to ask questions. If you don’t ask questions he may not respect you. He’s there to educate. That’s so important. He’s not like other vets you run across, who act defensive if you ask questions.”
“That is unusual. I may call him. I’ll put up some fliers for the cat and if no one claims it I’ll call him.” Alex likes the idea of the cat. They make nice foot warmers. Maybe he won’t put up the sign. She tells him how impressed she is that he recognizes the need to have pets neutered to keep the stray population down. She praises his samaritanism. It’s as if he’s at a used cat dealership and she’s trying to sell him a lemon. He thanks her and heads back with his haul.
When Alex opens the door he sniffs, but can’t smell any urine.
“Looks like you’re in for the night, fella.”
“Meow.” The cat rubs his head against him and brushes his legs with his tail, marks him like a piece of furniture or a tree.
The way cats rub has meaning. A rub with the side of the head means property; the glands release a territorial scent. A rub with the top of the head is love. That’s how you can tell a neurotic cat. Too much affection means they’re too needy. A little is good. Cats are naturally cautious, so they may not rub you with the top of their heads right off, but you can rub them.
Flat out withdrawal or continued refusal by a cat for a touch between the ears means they’re either paranoid or just jerky. A jerk cat is no good to anyone but a jerk owner. Jerk cats misbehave when you turn your back, jump on the kitchen counter, shred the upholstery, piss in your plants, chew up important notes. They’re no better than gremlins.
Alex rubs the top of the cat’s head. No objections. He picks him up and takes him into the bathroom and shuts the door. He fills the sink with warm water to bathe him. The cat won’t have it. Legs splay out over the sink. Claws scratch counter and legs scramble. Toothbrush lands in the tub. Deodorant, nail clippers and other assorted sundries splash into the sink. The cat wants out.
“Meow. Meow. Meowwww.”
“Come on, fella. Some of that grime is coming off.” He fishes his sundries out and dunks a towel, then wipes the wet towel over the irritated cat. The cat calms.
“Just let me get all this off you.” The towel stains yellow-brown as he rubs into the fur.
“You are really nasty, cat. Anybody ever tell you that?”
“That’s what I thought.” The cat seems to like the dry towel even better, and growls. Is it a purr? With balls that big, it may be as close as he gets. He licks himself and watches TV with Alex. When Alex heads for the bedroom, the cat follows and Alex lays out a blanket under the bed for him. They curl up and sleep.
It’s three a.m. and Alex is wide awake. The stench is awful. The cat’s by the closet. So is a huge wet turd. He gets some toilet paper to pick up the warm dropping.
“You did have to go on the carpet didn’t you?”
The cat stares, flicks his tail.
“Don’t you know what a litter box is?” Alex gets most of the turd, but some sticks to the carpet.
“Shit. You asshole.”
He flushes, finds the disinfectant and sprays like crazy. The smell won’t go away.
Alex takes him to the bathroom.
“Here. See? Right here. This is the litter box. This is where you shit, not on the carpet.” He places him in the box. The cat resists. Alex holds his paws and makes him scratch and dig in the litter.
“Like this. Don’t you know how to do this? Or are you just used to the dirt?”
“Meow.” The cat breaks loose and runs under the bed. Alex drags him out.
“Into the bathroom. You sleep here tonight.” There are two doors in the bathroom. One has a knob and leads to the living room. The other is a sliding door, set in the wall between bathroom and bedroom. He closes both doors.
“Meow. Meow. Meowwww.” The cat scratches at the door.
“Shut up and go to sleep!”
“Meow!” Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“Shut up will you?!” The door slides open. Must not have closed it all the way. Impressive. Alex has trouble opening that door himself. The cat runs under the bed.
“Look. You just shit on the floor. You’re staying in the bathroom.” He catches him again and this time makes sure the sliding door is secure.
“Meow. Meow. Meowwww.”
Alex buries his head under a pillow.
“Meow. Meow. Meowwww.”
He rolls over. He’s tired. Just ignore it.
“Meow. Meow. Meow. Meowwww.”
He has to sleep sooner or later. He can’t keep it up. He’ll stop eventually. He has too.
“Meow. Meow. Meowwww.”
“Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to sleep!”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“Damn it.” I’m up. You better shut up or I’ll beat you!” He grabs for a pillow.
Alex slides the door open and the cat comes out. He whacks him on the ass with the pillow and the cat scurries under the bed.
“One more word out of you and you’re out the door. I have to work in the morning.” The red numbers on the clock read 4:00.
Alex dresses. He slept, now he’s running late. He picks up the worksheets for his students and places them by his bag. The cat screams for food and he feeds him. He feeds himself, two vitamins, a slice of sandwich bread, a glass of water. He feeds the plants quickly as well, a cup of water each. They aren’t doing well. Both are turning yellow. Not much light in the apartment. The cat screams at the door.
“You want out?”
He lets him out.
“You better shit while you’re out there.”
The cat flops on the sidewalk in front of the door and rolls in the warm spot where the sun streams down.
“I’m leaving in a few minutes. You better hurry up. If you’re not back inside by the time I’m leaving, you stay out.”
“Meow.” Recumbent, he stretches his paws out. He’s grinning.
“I’m serious.” Alex leaves the door cracked open and brushes his teeth. On the way out he grabs his bag. The cat is still sprawled in the sun, a flop-cat.
“In or out,” he tells him.
The cat stares.
“In or out.” Alex holds the door open, shows him he’s closing it, and opens it again.
“In or out. I’ve got to go.”
The cat grins at Alex.
“Out it is.” He locks the door and walks off. It’s only a half-mile to the campus. The cat runs ahead of him screaming, flops down and rolls. Alex stops.
“I don’t have time for this. I have to go.”
Alex walks around him. The cat does it again.
Alex bends down and strokes him. “You can’t follow me to school.”
He heads back and unlocks the door. The cat follows him in. Alex slips quickly out and locks him in.
“You’d better not shit on my carpet.”
Alex is late for his first class, for students who have trouble in reading. They’ll flunk out without help. A shortage of space forces him to hold sessions in the private study rooms in the library. Alex’s division reserved the rooms, bought locks and keys. The reference librarian issues the keys.
They make him stand in line. He’s ten more minutes late. His students will probably leave. Alex hands his faculty I.D. to the librarian who reads the bar code with a laser. The key-tag has one, too. It sets off the alarm at the door if someone tries to walk off with it.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t let you check out the key.”
Alex is stunned. “Why not?”
“There’s a hold on your record.” He hands his I.D. back.
Whenever someone owes money to the University, or hasn’t completed certain registration documentation, a hold is placed on the person’s computer record. Holds must be cleared in order to check out books from the library, enroll in classes, apply for graduation, and receive scholarships, grants and loans. Although Alex is faculty; he is also a graduate student, so holds are serious business for him. His paychecks are considered financial aid.
“I haven’t checked out a book for months. What’s the hold for?”
The librarian taps keys.
“You have a fine on your record. Eighteen dollars. Apparently you didn’t return the key on time last week.”
“Sure I did. This must be a mistake. I just put in my hours and go home.” He can’t stop thinking about the cat. It wolfed down a lot of food and Alex will be on campus all day.
He taps more keys.
“You had the key checked out for almost nine hours. You’re only allowed to check it out four hours at a time.”
“What? But I have classes all day on Fridays, and the room’s reserved for the whole day. And I’m late, I have students waiting.”
The librarian picks up the phone and dials the Library Director’s number. Alex listens. “He’s an instructor with the program but the computer has a hold on his record. He has a fine.” He pauses. “Uh-huh….Uh-huh. I see.”
Alex thinks about the cat.
“He says he’s scheduled all day on Fridays….okay. I’ll tell him.” He hangs up. “She says to go to circulation and pay the fine.”
“But I have students waiting and the room’s reserved.”
“She says if you have a problem to take it up with your Division Director.”
His first day in the program they wouldn’t give him a key and he had to see his Division Director who told him to talk to the Library Director who had his name and would let him in. He went to the Library Director who smiled and said that yes, she knew who he was and yes, she knew he needed the room, and that yes, she knew he had students waiting, but until she received an official notice on University letterhead signed by his Division Director, her hands were tied. It was a rule, one that she made up personally. She couldn’t go around breaking her own rules and expect anyone else to respect them, now could she? Everyone had to follow the rules. Everyone but cats of course. They can shit on your carpet and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
Alex dismisses his students and leaves a note on the door canceling all classes until after the lunch hour, and then leaves to see his Division Director. He has to wait. She says that this happened to two other instructors last week, but the Library Director agreed to waive the fines. Alex waits until she gets ahold of the Library Director. Everything is fine. No problem. Go after lunch and they’ll let you in.
It’s lunchtime. He checks his notes. The worksheets are still where he left them at home. Fucking cat. Probably destroying my apartment. I should have left him outside. He takes a bite from a cafeteria sandwich. There’s not much to it except price, soggy white bread, a thin meat slice, lettuce leaf, tomato. The cat’s bound to be hungry. Did I leave him any food? He ate everything I gave him. What if he’s screaming at the door? What if the neighbors complain and I get fined for having a pet, or worse, evicted. They’ll at least want a hefty deposit. He’s probably screaming. Pissing and shredding and screaming.
Alex waits in line for the key to the room his Division paid for, to pick up the key his Division paid for, to unlock the lock his Division paid for. He watches the minutes on the clock tick off. Only one librarian working. The librarian takes a student to a computer terminal across the room to explain the rudiments of searching an electronic card catalog. His rhythm is slow. He sees Alex and nods. Twelve minutes. The next in line wants references. She doesn’t know where to look. She jots down notes. One of the sources is on CD-ROM. “What’s that?” she asks. More computer instruction. Seventeen minutes.
Finally it’s Alex’s turn. He gives him his faculty I.D. The librarian scans it and hands it back to him. “I’m sorry but you have a fine. You’ll have to clear it before I can check out the key to you.”
Another librarian shows up and leans over the desk. Alex explains.
“I went through this earlier. I have students waiting. I spent several hours taking care of this and was told everything was fine. I’m just trying to do my job.”
“Who did you talk to?”
I went to my Division Director and she talked to the Library Director and I was told this was all straightened out.”
The librarian who has just arrived looks at the computer screen and mouths his name. “They called about you. You’re supposed to go to Circulation to take care of your hold.”
The line at Circulation is always long and he doesn’t want to stand in another line. He knows what will happen. They’ll want him to pay the fine, or refer him back to Reference. He does what any normal person would do in this situation. He keeps repeating his request.
A colleague once told Alex that this is the best way to handle things. Pick a story, a simple one, a request. Don’t embellish. Just keep repeating, “I want my meat.” Whatever they say, whatever objection they make, just repeat: “I want my meat.” Damn it. I want my meat.
“I was told this was all taken care of. I need to get into my room. I have students waiting.”
“If that’s true then you can go to Circulation and they’ll take the hold off for you,” says the first librarian.
No way will he stand in that line.
“I have students waiting.”
The librarian who just arrived steps away to help a student. The other glares at Alex.
“May I use your phone, please?” Alex asks politely. No use offending him.
The librarian draws himself up, postures. He sneers while he talks, pushes the words out with his tongue like he’s disgusted. “No, you cannot use the phone. You can go to Circulation and take care of your holds.” Then he turns his back. Wonderful. Technology is wonderful. Superfast computers, CD-ROMs, lasers, bar codes, and now library robots.
“You can go to hell,” says Alex, in as polite a tone as he can muster, and makes a mental note to refuse library personnel access to his Division phones. We’ll screen everyone when they ask to use the phone. “Do you work in the library?” If they say yes, we’ll tell them to go back over there. “Try Circulation,” we’ll tell them.
He considers holding class in front of the main desk at the Reference section, but decides against it, then sends his students away and leaves a note canceling his other classes. He phones his Division Director from a payphone in the lobby and tells her he will try again tomorrow. Then he goes to the Student Union to study for a while.
But he can’t study. He knows the cat has found his stamp collection and is rifling through the pages, chewing up the most valuable ones and vomiting on the rest. He knows he’s knocked over the expensive vase his rich Aunt gave him a few years ago. I just know he’s spraying the whole house with rancid cat urine, raiding the refrigerator and dancing with the stereo up way too loud. There will be an eviction notice on the door when I get home. I’ll have to make my way past fire engines and yellow crime scene tape with big black letters that say, CAUTION: CRIME SCENE–DO NOT ENTER. The cat will be in the back of an ambulance hacking on a furball and the police will question and eventually arrest me for criminal negligence and cruelty to animals.
“You didn’t leave that cat any food ya know,” they’ll say. “He tried to heat up a box of lasagna on the stove top and damned near burned the whole complex down.” Torrents of water from the fire hoses will run out his front door and carry charred bits and pieces of his life away.
“He shit on the floor,” he’ll say. “And they wouldn’t give me the key to the room.”
The cops will drag him off as the cat woman and her animal advocates scream and jeer and mug for the TV cameras, carrying signs with snappy slogans like, “Cats are people, too!” and “Kitten Slayers, NO!” and “Make love, not fur coats,” and “Down with negligent pet owners!” They’ll interview his rich aunt and an ex-girlfriend and everyone will say they saw it coming. “There’s always been something about him didn’t seem quite right. We all knew it was a matter of time. That poor cat.” That’s what they’ll say.
Studying is useless. He’s tired from the night before and worn out from wrangling for the room. Alex surrenders and trudges home, watching and listening for cars along the parts of the road where there’s no sidewalk and the blacktop is the only route past thick brush and trees. Everyone’s in a hurry. He tends to have one near-death experience daily while he’s walking, two if he’s driving. Last year he opted to forego the expense of a parking permit and brave the road on foot. The walks seem to do him good.
At the complex there’s not a fire engine in sight. Good news. His door looks normal, no crime scene tape, no notes. He unlocks the door. The cat’s on the rug in front of the antique chair.
Things appear the way he left them. Alex sighs, then almost retches. The apartment reeks. Foul. Where is it? This cat must have dropped a load like a Tyrannosaur. He tosses the cat out the open door, holds his nose to investigate. There are three piles in the bedroom, one in his favorite pair of tennis shoes. Not just on his shoes, but in his shoes. He cleans it up with toilet paper and flushes, and then cranks up the air conditioner. The deodorant can is no use. It’s almost empty and the smell is overpowering. I’ll go to the store. I’ll get some spray. By the time I get back the odor should be less severe. The cat wanders back in and rubs against his leg affectionately.
“You shit in my shoes you bastard,” he says and heaves him out the door.
“Meow.” Alex heads for the car.
“Meow yourself, asshole.” I’m just not polite today.
The cat lies down in front of his door. It looks like he’s going to wait Alex out. Won’t work. He’s not getting back in.
He takes his time at the store, picks up some things he needs and some he doesn’t. There’s a bottle of Sangria in the wine section. The price is right. $3.49 for 1.5 liters. Just what he needs. He puts it in the cart with the deodorant, potato chips, and six cans of chicken noodle soup. He’s hungry. By the time he reaches the checkout his collection has grown. The items slide past the laser which reads the bar codes. Prices scroll down a computer monitor. Oreo cookies… $2.49; Chicken noodle 6oz… $0.68; Sangria…$6.98. Wait a minute.
“Excuse me,” he says to the checker. She returns a blank look. “I think the price is wrong on the Sangria, it was only $3.49.”
The checker picks up the intercom and calls for a price check, then starts sliding items past the laser. No one responds to the price check. When she finishes, she calls again. Alex writes out a check except for the amount. The lady behind him has a concerned look on her face. Everyone’s in a hurry.
The checker starts to bag the groceries. Alex points to the wine section a few yards away, “It’s just right there,” he says. She sends a bagboy to look. Alex gives him directions. “It’s on the top shelf, right there. In the middle.” They watch as he wanders around the wine section, clearly lost. The woman behind Alex twists her hands on her cart handle like she’s working the controls on a motorbike. She has teeth like a horse.
“He looks lost,” he says. “I should go help him.”
“No, Sir,” says the cashier. “There’s no need for that.” She fidgets. The bagboy appears again and looks right at the spot, then disappears.
“He missed it,” says Alex. “I’ll go help him.” He squeezes past the lady behind him. She hisses through her teeth.
There are only three bottles of Sangria left, a big seller. Alex points and the bagboy nods his head.
“See? $3.49,” Alex says. The digital unit price under the display reads, “1.5 liters… $3.49.” The bagboy looks at the sign, then the bottles, then back to the sign.
“It’s not the right brand,” he says. There are three prices, three brands. “The brand doesn’t match.”
“That’s okay,” says Alex. “I’ll take it for $3.49.” Sangria is Sangria. He just wants a drink, and doesn’t expect much from a store bought Sangria. They go back to the register where the nervous cashier and the enraged woman wait. Alex tells the cashier the story. The pimple-faced bagboy tells the cashier the story.
“I’ll take it for $3.49,” says Alex. He wants his meat. They step away and whisper.
“Uh…,” says the cashier. “I’ll have to call the manager. They don’t usually allow substitutions.”
The woman behind Alex begins changing colors. Her face flushes, then pales, then turns a purple hue. She is trapped. There are long lines everywhere. The manager shows up dressed in a bright blue starched vest with store logo emblazoned across it. She has a conference with the cashier, then the bagboy, then both of them. Finally she turns to Alex.
“What’s the problem, Sir?”
She’s short, overweight, and has a stain that looks like lunch on her blouse. Alex figures by now that she knows what’s going on, and she has to notice the woman behind him with the horse teeth whose expression shifts from one rainbow hue to another as she twists the metal from her grocery cart. He explains everything carefully and adds, “I’ll take the Sangria for $3.49.” He wants his meat.
The manager speaks cryptically into a walkie-talkie, and then moves to the wine section. Another manager appears, walkie-talkie in hand. They talk, he folds his arms, she folds hers, they tap their feet, and then call the bagboy over. The bagboy points to the shelf, the Sangria, the unit price. They send him away. More arm folding and foot tapping. They add head nodding. The woman behind Alex growls. The manager returns.
“I’m sorry, Sir. We’re not allowed to make substitutions. If you want the Sangria, you’l1 have to pay the six dollars.”
“Seven,” he corrects her. “And the sign says $3.49. You should honor it.”
“The sign is for a different Sangria.”
”It’s misleading. You have three Sangrias, three prices.”
“We don’t know how that happened, Sir. The other manager says he’s never seen that brand before. We don’t carry it.”
“You don’t carry the brand?”
“I see.” Alex considers telling her that he works in the D.A.’s office, that this is bait and switch advertising and the fine is a minimum of $10,000. He wishes he had a badge to flash and a small notebook to record her name in, “…for the report, Ma’am.” A good ploy, but doomed to failure. He’s convinced that she’s either a cunning and evil grocery store manager cashing in on acting lessons, or she really is an idiot who won’t understand bait and switch even if she does it all day. And with his luck, the woman behind him probably does work for the District Attorney, and she’ll be more concerned that she’s had to wait in line because of some asshole than she will be that dozens of customers have been duped into buying cheap wine at double the price. She probably doesn’t like Sangria and she probably loves cats. He’ll be hauled off in cuffs, charged with impersonating an officer of the court and attempted reduction in price of an alcoholic beverage. If I wasn’t so hungry I would leave. I would just walk out, but there’s soup and Oreos.
“Would you like a rain check, Sir?” asks the manager.
“What’s a rain check?”
“A rain check is when I fill out this piece of paper and you can bring it back. That way you get a sale item that’s of stock for the advertised price, even if it’s not on sale anymore.”
“A rain check is for sale items?”
“And is the unit price listed a sale price?”
“Then it’s the regular price?”
“So you won’t let me have the Sangria for $3.49, but you will give me a piece of paper that says I can come back any time and buy the other brand at the regular price when it’s in stock.”
“That’s correct, Sir.”
“Well what good does that do me?”
“What do you mean, Sir?”
“What do I need a piece of paper for that allows me to by a product at its regular price when it’s in stock? I can do that without a piece of paper.”
“You don’t want the rain check?”
“It serves no purpose. I can buy any item in the store at regular price when it’s in stock. I have no use for a rain check. Besides, you don’t carry that brand. Are you planning on carrying that brand?”
“No, Sir, we don’t know how that happened.”
“So you want to give me a piece of paper that would serve no real purpose if you carried that brand, but you don’t intend to order that brand anyway. Is that right?”
“I don’t follow you, Sir.”
“So you won’t sell me the Sangria for $3.49?”
“We’re not allowed to make substitutions, Sir.”
“I’d say a substitution’s already been made. I’m not responsible for how you stock your shelves, Ma’am.”
A lane opens up next to us and a cashier urges people into it. The people from the back of the line rush over and the woman behind him is still trapped. She fumes. Alex can actually see the heat rising from her neck.
“I can still give you the rain check.”
Alex hands her the Sangria. “Put this with your rain check,” he tells her. She walks away, and he watches her put the bottle back on the shelf in the same spot. The horse-toothed woman starts barking at the cashier as soon as he clears the checkout stand. He’s not sure how long this has gone on. All he knows is that he didn’t buy the Sangria, or any cat food, and it’s dark out.
When he reaches the complex the cat is gone, but there’s a note at the door. It’s from the cat woman. He unloads the groceries. The cat woman is worried because she saw the cat. She wants to know if he can take him to the vet in the morning. She wants him to call immediately, no matter what time he gets in. He decides to call her in the morning. His phone’s disconnected and he’s too tired to walk to the payphone. His pager goes off, so he walks to the payphone. He’s hungry.
Alex checks his messages. It’s the cat woman. She wants him to call. She’s worried about the cat. She says she can take him to the vet to be neutered in the morning if he can’t manage it. She put a collar on the cat in case management spots him, so they’ll think he belongs to someone. Alex tromps home and makes dinner. He’s exhausted and needs to study. He opens a book and drifts off.
The doorbell rings. It’s 11:00 p.m. Groggy, Alex opens the door. The cat woman stares up at him.
“Did you get my note?”
“Yes. I was going to call you tomorrow.”
“Well, did you get my phone message? I paged you. I left a phone message.”
“I’m tired.” She has to see I am tired.
“Well, what are you going to do about the cat?”
“I’m sure he’ll be okay.”
“Well if you don’t mind me asking, why is he outside?”
“I let him out earlier. I figured it was better that way.”
“Did he do something or…?”
“He screamed all night and he shit all over the carpet. I haven’t slept. I need to sleep.”
“So you just put him out? You didn’t show him his litter box?”
She is grating on his nerves. “He refuses to use it. I don’t think he’s ever seen one. He’s wild.”
“No. He’s somebody’s cat. He’s too friendly to be wild. Somebody dumped him. He needs a home.” Alex ignores the comment. I am tired. He tells her he needs to sleep. She wants him to take the cat to be neutered.
“If you can’t pay for everything at once, they’ll work out payments with you.”
He explains that he is not keeping the cat, and that he can’t afford the vet bill. At half price for everything including tests and shots it’s still almost a hundred dollars. She tries to make him promise to take the cat in and call her if it returns.
“Can he stay with you then?” he asks. After all, she didn’t take him in earlier. She gave him some food and a purple collar and left him outside.
“No. Shamus won’t allow that.” Shamus is one of her wimp cats that runs away the second a stranger sets foot in her apartment.
“I can’t put up with the screaming and the shitting.”
“Oh well. I guess I understand.” She leaves. Alex flops into bed and everything goes black.
The doorbell’s ringing. Alex looks at the red numbers on the clock. 12:30. He staggers to the door.
“Just a minute,” he yells. His shorts won’t zip up. Where’s the zipper? This isn’t right. He steps out of them and turn them around. Next, a shirt. He buttons a button. He doesn’t know if he aligned it right. The bell rings again.
“Just a minute!”
It’s the cat woman. “Guess who I found!” she says. A smile creases her face and she bobs her head back and forth. Alex knows she’s insane.
“Can we come in?” The cat runs into the kitchen and sprays the refrigerator.
“Meow,” he says. Alex ignores him. The cat lady follows.
“Isn’t it great!” she says. I know she’s been looking for the little bastard for almost two hours, just so she could come over here to wake me up.
“Can we give him some of the dry food!” Every time she asks a question it’s not a question. She is the cheerleader of cats.
Hanrammrrunwrummann,” he grunts. He’s not sure what it means or what he’s trying to say. She takes it as a yes. She grabs a dish from the counter and produces a half-empty can of Comfy Kitten Chow from god knows where and plops it on the dish. Alex grabs the bag of dry food from the fridge. The fridge reeks of piss. It’s all over the door. He drops the bag on the counter and heads for the bathroom and a bar of soap. He sees her mashing the wet food into a patty with her fingers.
“Gross,” he says.
“Meeooooowwwwww. Meeooooowwwwww,” says the cat.
The cat shuts up as soon as he gets his meat. Alex collapses onto the couch. She sits down.
“It’s good of you to help him out like this.”
He grunts. I wish they’d both leave.
“Can he stay here just until the morning and I swear I’ll take him to the vet.”
“Maybe you should take him now.”
She isn’t listening. “You could lock him in the bathroom with his litter box. That way, even if he doesn’t use the box at least he won’t go on the carpet. And I can come with my cat carrier in the morning and pick him up.”
“I tried that. He screamed. Kept me up half the night. I can’t have that. I need to sleep.”
“Of course. Well maybe you can just put some papers down in the spot he goes, and then he’ll go on the papers. It’s only for the night.”
“Why can’t you lock him in your bathroom?”
Her face goes blank. “That’s impossible.” Alex agrees to let the cat stay so she will get the hell out, but she doesn’t leave.
“Now we want everything done at once. He’ll need a test for feline leukemia and feline AIDs first, then his shots. We should do that before he gets neutered.” She runs down the checklist of all the things he needs to spend his money on to make things right with the cat and the universe. I owe this cat nothing. In fact, the cat owes me. He should buy me a steak and then clean up after me, do the dishes, pick up my turds. Alex does what any normal human being would do in this situation. He offers her money.
“I can pay for the neuter, but I can’t afford the rest. I just don’t have the money and I can’t keep the cat.”
“But what good does it do to have him neutered if you’re just going to put him out? He’ll just have to stay here until I can place him.”
This is the woman who praises him for understanding the necessity of neutering strays so that they won’t produce huge families of strays. It’s too late to argue. He changes the subject.
“You work in the library, right?”
“Yes, in Reference.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you worked in Reference. Do you know the Director?”
“Not personally, why?”
“Does she have something against the reading program?”
“I don’t know. You’d have to ask her. Why do you ask?”
“I’m having trouble with the keys.” He tells her the story about the room keys and how he has to jump through hoops to get them and how he has to stand in line.
“I’ve never seen you come in for a key,” she says, a puzzled look on her face.
“You must work the desk when I don’t need to.”
“Oh,” she says. “We don’t appreciate the keys either.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re reference librarians, not key guards. We shouldn’t have to hand out keys. We’re there to answer people’s reference questions. They should put those keys at Circulation with the other piddly stuff. We don’t have time.”
“Well all I know is that I work for the University, and it is my duty to teach those students in those rooms, and I’m not being allowed to do it because of some silly rules the Director doesn’t want to bend. There must be some way to be more accommodating.”
“I don’t see why you’re telling me this. You should tell your problems to your Division Director.”
“My Division Director doesn’t run the library. I don’t understand why we can’t have some cooperation to avoid these problems when they arise. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to check a key out of the library.”
“But it’s not your problem.”
“If it’s not my problem whose is it?”
“Your Division Director’s.”
Obviously. Who else’s could it be? After all, I’m the one who has to stand in line to get the key. I’m the one who has to stand in the same idiotic line to return the key, because they not only have to be checked out, they have to be checked in. I’m the one with the fine who can’t get in the room to teach at all anymore, but that’s not important. And my students, they don’t count. Yup. That leaves my Division Director. He appreciates the cat woman’s sympathy for his predicament.
“Your phone doesn’t work?” she asks.
“Is there a number I can reach you at if I can’t come in the morning?”
“Do you think you’ll have a problem in the morning?” The alarm bells go off in his head. She wants to leave the cat here forever. When I close the door she’ll board it up, slip cat food and burritos through a slot in the door. Eventually the fumes will kill me, turd inhalation. I’ll die of turd inhalation. He notices the plants seem remarkably greener.
“Oh no,” she says. “But just in case I need to call, what number should I dial?”
She already has the pager number. “I tell you what. I’ll give you my digital. That way if you can’t come, you can enter a code and I’ll know to put the cat out. You can also page me with a code to tell me that you’re on your way.” He feels clever. This is a good solution to the problem.
“You can’t just keep him one more day if for some reason I can’t get a cat carrier or get away for an hour to take him? I’m putting out a lot of effort here.” Right. But you want to. I just want you and the cat to get lost, and the cat’s better at it than you. And it’s not like you’ll let him in your apartment.
“Look. He screams and he shits all over the place. I can’t have that. I’m leaving at nine. If you’re not here by then, look for him outside.”
“But what if while he’s at the vet he learns to use a litter box? They have them right in the cages and I’ll bet he’ll go in the box rather than on himself or near his food. He has to be boarded a few days anyway. What do you think!” She really isn’t asking, so he doesn’t tell her that he thinks the cat can hold out, not shit until he’s out. Save it up for the reunion.
“I won’t take the cat.”
“Well he needs somewhere until he’s placed.”
“Leave him outside. He’s obviously not going anywhere.”
“But it’s almost Halloween and he’s all white. You know what some people do on Halloween to all black cats. They do it to all white cats too. He’s just not safe.” Right, it’s September and Satan’s catnappers are canvassing the apartment complexes for sacrifices. He’s much safer with us. We only want to cut his balls off.
“That would solve the problem,” he says. Her face falls. She’s obviously disturbed by the comment. The cat is sleeping on the floor. He is sprawled out on his back smiling.
“Oh look at him!” she says. “He’s such a beautiful cat. A man’s cat. He really belongs to a man.”
He’s filthy, no doubt a man’s cat, but not this man’s cat.
“It can take a few days to place a cat,” she tells him. “I’m very meticulous. I ask a lot of questions. Some people are put off by it. I figure if they don’t have the patience to answer a few questions, they probably won’t take care of an animal. Pets require patience, especially new ones.” She pauses to look at Alex.
“I even make them show me the environment. I have to see the house. I walk all the way through and poke around, just to be sure. One lady refused to tell me where she lived. She said she wanted the cat, but when I told her I needed to see the house, she refused to give me her address.”
Yeah. She probably didn’t want you in her house. A lot of people object to the insane visiting their homes.
“I can’t keep the cat.”
Her voice falters and she speaks more rapidly. “Well, I can’t place him if I don’t know where he is. What good does it do? I can’t tell someone to come over to meet the cat and then I can’t find him.”
Alex wonders what happened to all the elaborate cat security checks, the potential owner screening test, and the visits to the home. It doesn’t all seem to work. But he’s in no mood to argue. He’s tired.
“He can stay the night. If you’re not here by the time I leave in the morning, I’m putting him out. I can’t have him in here.”
She demands written instructions on how to use the digital pager. He scribbles down some codes for her so he’ll know if she’s coming or not without having to go to the payphone.
“Call when you’re on your way.”
She finally leaves. It’s past two. Alex puts down some newspapers. Maybe he does prefer to shit in the same spot most of the time. The cat snoozes, comfortable and full.
There’s something about the cat. He looks familiar. Alex can’t place him. He knows he’s seen him before. That white fur, the pink around his ears where the skin shows through. That odd head. Then he remembers, years ago on the way home with some friends. It was a Saturday evening, and they were going to have a few drinks, maybe splash in the pool for a while. Darren’s girlfriend, Samantha, was driving. Darren was an old buddy that Alex met in high school. For the fun of it they often raced when the streets were deserted, and that evening was no exception. Alex had been left behind at a stop light.
Alex had Darren’s sister with him, and Darren and Samantha were ahead of them in her old green VW, but when Alex turned onto the street where he lived, Samantha’s car was in the middle of the road with the driver’s door open and the lights on. There was a full moon that night, too. Alex stopped and saw that the two were out of the car. Samantha was bawling her eyes out as Darren tried to comfort her. She looked like she might fall down. Alex stopped behind them and got out.
“What happened?” he asked. Samantha wailed something incomprehensible. Darren tried to soothe her. Darren’s sister went to Samantha, and Darren pointed to the curb. A cat lay in the grass, a white cat.
“She ran over the cat,” said Darren. Samantha wailed, sucking air as words garbled past her pulsating lower lip. The cat seemed incredibly calm in comparison.
“Is it hurt?” Alex knelt down for a better look. Its chest heaved steadily.
“She ran right over it, both tires. The car bumped in the front and the back,” said Darren. Alex looked at the Volkswagen. Darren knelt down.
“I had to carry him to the curb,” he said. Samantha wailed. Alex gave her keys to Darren’s sister and told her to unlock his apartment. He lived in the adjacent complex.
“Take her to my apartment,” he told her. He couldn’t think with all the screaming. She said she was just upset, that she wanted to stay. Darren’s sister took her a few feet away to calm her down.
The cat’s head looked large, made him look almost wild. Some pink showed around the ears where the fur was thin. Alex touched the top of his head. Blood trickled from his ears and nose, his mouth frothy and pink, and his eyes seemed as though they couldn’t focus. As he touched the tip of his fingers to the cat’s forehead, it purred.
Darren lifted the tail, streaked red. “Every hole,” he said. “He’s not too good.” The cat continued to purr. His chest heaved steadily, laboriously.
“Do we have any money?” Alex asked, but he already knew the answer. “There’s an animal hospital down the road.”
“He’s a goner, Alex. There’s no way. All they can do is kill him, and we’re all broke.” The cat continued to purr.
“We can’t leave him here,” said Alex.
“Sis, take Samantha to Alex’s apartment.”
“What about the cat?” wailed Samantha. “What’re you going to do?”
“The cat will be all right, trust me. Everything will be fine.”
“What are you going to do?” she wailed.
“He’ll be fine. We’re going to take care of him.”
“I didn’t mean to,” she wailed. “I didn’t mean to.” She sucked at her lower lip as tears streamed down her neck. She tried to get to the cat. “I’m sorry,” she wailed, “I didn’t mean to.”
The cat flinched. Alex could see the muscle groups contract. He told his body to run and it didn’t listen. Darren grabbed Samantha and ordered her to go to Alex’s apartment. He reassured her that the cat would be fine. The girls headed off.
“You want to do it or should I?” he asked. Alex’s stomach sank.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “Not here. Someone sees us and they might not understand. We’d better move our cars out of the road, too.”
“Oh yeah,” said Darren. He took care of the car. The air was cool and the light from the moon washed over the cat’s white fur.
“Don’t worry,” Alex told the cat. “It won’t be long now.” He stroked him lightly between the ears. “We’re really sorry. We wish it didn’t have to be like this.” The cat purred.
When Darren returned, Alex picked the cat up. He didn’t scream. He kept purring. Alex held his arms out in front of him like a forklift. He could feel his broken body. There was no hope. They took him behind an apartment building and set him in the grass between the wall and the wooden fence. There were no windows on that side of the building and no light from the streetlamps. The moon seemed very bright.
“How are we going to do it?” asked Darren.
“I’ve got something in my car.” Alex ran back and dug under the seat. He kept a club there, an old billy club, cut in half, drilled and filled with lead. A whack with that could take the bark off a tree. One shot is all it would take. He went back behind the building.
“You’re going to do it with that?”
“It’s all I’ve got.”
“Let’s get it over with,” said Darren. Alex looked at the cat. The chest still heaved, but not as steadily. Alex reached for its forehead and it tried to rub against his fingers.
“Let’s wait a second,” he said. “I need to get ready.” He didn’t want to screw it up. He would raise the club as high as possible and bring it down right on top of its skull. It had to be fast and hard and accurate. He raised the club.
Alex paused and found his mark. He stretched his arm as high as it would go, balanced the club for the greatest impact, and then brought it down as hard as he possibly could. There was a sickening clunk.
He couldn’t believe it didn’t work. He tried again, using the swing he used when chopping firewood. Alex could split a log right down the middle with an axe, without using a wedge. Clunk.
“Let me try,” said Darren. He took the club.
“No,” said Alex. “Not with the club. It’s not going to work. We need something else.” He wasn’t sure now that the cat couldn’t survive.
“What?” said Darren. “Do you have a knife?”
He did. Alex told him to go to the apartment to get it. He had a folding lock-back knife that he used to cut open boxes with. He told him where to find it.
“Don’t bring a kitchen knife. Samantha will see it and it will be hard to hide. I’ll stay with the cat.”
Darren left. Alex stroked the cat. It purred. Another cat appeared. It came right up and sniffed them both.
“Go away,” said Alex. It walked a few feet away staring, flicking its tail.
“Go away.” It stayed. There was a scream far off, Samantha. She had seen the knife. A few minutes later Darren slipped behind the fence. He handed Alex the knife. He opened the blade. It clicked as it locked into place. He put his hand under the cat’s head and drew the knife under its throat. He purred. Alex’s stomach twisted.
“Are you going to do it?”
“I’m afraid to screw it up like I did with the club.”
“Do it just like you would if you were hunting. Pretend it’s a deer.”
“I’ve never been hunting,” he confessed.
“You’ve never been hunting?” He sounded surprised. “Here, let me do it.”
Grateful, he handed him the knife and sat back. Darren took his place over the cat.
“Is he purring?”
“Don’t ask me that.” Darren’s voice cracked. The white tail flickered. Alex noticed something in the shadows, another cat. Clouds had covered the moon. It was very dark. He thought he could make out more than one in the shadows, and felt a chill. Darren twisted slightly. The tail stopped flicking. Neither one of them spoke. A strange sound hummed around them. The hair stood up on the back of Alex’s neck.
“What is that?” asked Darren. They listened as it grew louder, a low, growling noise. The clouds thinned around the moon and Alex saw them. There must have been twenty or so, surrounding them. Cats.
Darren saw them too. “What should we do?” he said. Alex didn’t answer. The noise grew louder. A cat rubbed up against him.
“They’re purring,” said Alex. They were. He had never seen so many cats. They purred collectively, eerily. They rubbed or sniffed at them and sniffed at the limp white corpse, as if paying some sort of gratitude and last respects. Darren and Alex stood up slowly and left.
At four a.m. Alex’s eyes pop open. They’re watering from the fumes. He hears a scratching noise, claws on paper. When he looks he sees the cat trying to cover the shit with the papers. The cat shit on the carpet next to them. Alex plucks the turds up in some toilet paper and flushes. It’s not wet globs like last time. He’s healthier already.
“Git!” he tells him. The cat hides under the antique chair in the other room. Alex goes back to sleep.
The sound of his pager explodes. His eyes open again. 7:00 a.m. His body is contorted, neck twisted at an odd angle, arms numb. He splashes water in his face from the sink in the bathroom, then jabs at the pager button with stick fingers. All ones line the display, 1111111, which means she’s on her way. He has no choice. He’s up for the uration. He grabs for his toothbrush and paste with deadwood hands and squeezes out a glob of mint-flavored goo. Some lands in the sink and some grips the sides of the bristles instead of the top. He wipes at it with cold fingers. Paste smears his hands. He raises the brush to his mouth and starts to work it. More paste appears on his cheeks.
Ptah! The taste reminds him that he’s forgotten to dilute with water. He spits, but there’s nothing to spit. His mouth is dry and coated with thick mint. He twists and smears chrome knobs as the gag reflex kicks in, dropping his head into the sink to splash at the stream. Tingling hands help guide the water in. Once clean he wets his hair down. She’s close by, so he’ll wait to shower. Can’t have her pounding on the door while I’m in there. He pulls on a pair of shorts and a shirt. The cat’s still under the antique chair.
“Come on out, Lazarus.” He noses out, and when he’s half-way out and still can’t stand, he stretches his back against the chair bottom by pushing up with his forelegs. Once he’s completely out he drops on his forepaws, stretches out and arches his back with his ass in the air. Alex plods into the kitchen and retrieves the bag of dry food from the fridge.
The cat screams and runs between his legs and Alex almost trips as he fills a plate for him.
“Sorry, fella. No hamburger. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
The cat quiets when he gets his meat. Alex spends some time in the bathroom with the water running, accomplishing nothing, just staring, poking and pulling at his face. I should shave. He keeps forgetting.
At 8:00 she still hasn’t shown up and Alex is awake enough to be irritated. He foregoes his shower, but manages to finish his teeth, shave and look presentable. He dresses for school and work, gathers his things. The cat sprawls on his back to snooze, grinning. He looks like he belongs in that spot. The air conditioner’s on and a slight turd smell still wafts about. I have a test tomorrow. I haven’t studied. The doorbell rings about the time he needs to leave. It’s the cat woman. She’s ridiculously happy to see the cat. She talks to him like he’s a baby. She is so obnoxious. He hates her for taking the cat and he hates her for not taking him sooner.
“I have the cat carrier outside,” she says. “Can I bring it in?”
“Of course.” Bring the fucking thing in and let’s get this over with. It hardly fits through the door. No way is this a cat carrier, more like a Saint Bernard carrier. It’s the kind you see at the airport, a reinforced plastic top and bottom riveted together and a large swinging door that has two rods to lock it in place, both set with springs. To open the door the latch has to be depressed from both the top and the bottom simultaneously, an act requiring thumbs.
“Do you carry dogs in this?”
“Dogs? Of course not. This is for cats. I don’t mess with dogs.” Now he understands. The look on her face makes it clear. She is exclusively a cat advocate.
“So you never pick up stray dogs?”
“God, no. I would never do that. Dogs are awful.” I should tell her that they keep the stray cat population down. No, not a good idea.
She swings the huge cage door open.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get him in here. This sometimes takes a long time.”
Alex watches in disbelief as she tries to talk the cat into the cage. The cat stretches and walks over to sniff the cage, which probably smells of other strays and who-knows-what-else to a cat.
“Oh no,” she says. “He’s not going in. I was afraid of this. It might be a while.” I don’t have a while. I need to leave. She sits on the floor tapping a finger on the side of the plastic, trying to entice him in. Alex reaches down.
“In,” he says, and gently hefts him from underneath into the cage. He locks it down.
“Well, there you go,” says Alex. Now get the fuck out of here, I’ve got to get to school. She beams up at him like it’s the best thing ever.
“Wow! You did that so well. I’m really impressed. You should do that more often!” She baby talks the cat some more.
“Does he like his new cage?” She babbles at him, ignoring the distressed tone of his cries.
“Well, I guess you two better get going,” says Alex.
She stands up. “Umm…you said that you could help with the vet?” And he remembers. He told her that he would pay for the neuter. A sick feeling creeps over him. This is a stray cat. A tom. He roams the woods behind the apartments where coyotes and foxes and other wild things roam. If no one feeds him, he must hunt to survive. If there’s one thing he needs more than anything else, it’s his balls.
Alex stares at the crazy woman in his living room, the wild look in her eyes, the frazzled hair, and he knows how the Nazis felt, the ones who went along despite their own disgust at the atrocities they committed. He gets his checkbook.
“What’s the vet’s name?” If it’s Mengele, I’ll scream. I’ll scream and throw her out and I’ll keep the cat in the cage. The cat can stay in the cage until he learns to shit in some litter. If she calls the police, I’ll just say that she’s crazy. She is crazy, so the story might stick.
“Could you just make it out to me? It would be easier.” How would it be easier? You’re on your way to the vet. Nothing could be easier than handing him a check already filled out. He writes the check.
“How much for the neuter?”
“Well, it’s $35.00 regularly, at half-price for strays….” She’s stuck. Math is not her strong suit. Cashing checks is her strong suit.
“17.50?” asks Alex.
“That sounds right,” she says. Paying down the balance on the phone bill will have to wait. He writes the check for $50.00 and hands it to her.
“Oh, thank you! You’re such a good person!” She folds it in half and it disappears.
“His test results should be in tomorrow. I’ll let you know.” She maneuvers the cage out the door.
Alex says goodbye and closes the door behind them. He gathers his things into his bag, checking that he has everything. He needs to study for that test tomorrow and he’s meeting some students this afternoon. Outside the air’s almost chilly, winter’s coming. He listens. He can’t hear the cat anymore.